The 2019 NFL regular season is approaching its final month, and there are intriguing division title races everywhere. Everywhere except two (maybe three) divisions. One of those is our beloved (or despised, depending on your viewpoint) NFC South.
With only six games to go, the New Orleans Saints lead the division by three games. That’s not insurmountable, necessarily, but they don’t look like they’re headed for a losing streak any time soon. That combined with the Carolina Panthers trending in the wrong direction almost guarantees a third straight NFC South title for Drew Brees and company.
But there’s still football to be played, even for the teams with nothing but pride to play for. So, let’s see what lies ahead for the division in Week 12, shall we?
Updated NFC South Standings (Through Week 11)
NFC South Week 12 Schedule
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons — 1:00 p.m.
Overview: This game, the first meeting of the year between the two teams, will decide who holds sole possession of last place in the division heading into December. Both sit at 3-7, though it’s the Bucs who appear to have a murkier future. Sunday could be a step in the right direction for a team that has no identity. Jameis Winston, whose future in Tampa still feels far from decided, has played well against the Falcons in his career. That should bode well for the Bucs on offense, but the defense is still figuring things out — especially in the secondary with its mix of rookies and second-year players. This will probably turn into a high-scoring game, but it’s one the Bucs should be capable of winning. Then again, this is the type of game that could end with more talk of “Bucs beating Bucs.”
The Falcons are hard to figure out. They’ve won back-to-back games over the Saints and Panthers, looking far more like the team they used to be than the one they were in the first eight games of the season. Former Buccaneer head coach Dirk Koetter is their offensive coordinator, and fans who watched his tenure in Tampa know how his offense operates. For much of the 2019 season, Atlanta has seen the worse side of it. But this is still an offense that is capable of putting up some gaudy numbers against Tampa Bay’s worst-ranked defense. And on the other side of the ball, the Falcons have allowed just 12 points total in the last two weeks. Even still, this is a Bucs-Falcons game we’re talking about. There will be points, there will be turnovers and there will be plenty of tension. It should be a fun one to watch, if not supremely frustrating.
Bucs Outlook: Tampa Bay has been here before. It’s not even Thanksgiving and draft talk has been going on for weeks. The fan base is split, as usual, over wanting to win games and just losing for better positioning in the 2020 NFL Draft. At the very least, we know that the coaches and players will be out there to win. The Bucs can win this game, but it’s going to take more than just one win to answer any questions about Winston, the defense and the coaching staff. The rest of the season needs to be a significant improvement over the first 10 games, and if it’s not, who even knows what the next six months will look like? The Bucs need to find some hope for the future, and they’ve got to start somewhere. Maybe it’s Sunday in Atlanta.
Falcons Outlook: Atlanta’s situation seems a lot less dire than Tampa Bay’s. Matt Ryan is still a solid enough quarterback, Julio Jones is still Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley is emerging as a great No. 2. The defense has some very good pieces, and that has been evident lately. This team has just been inconsistent. Complementary football has been difficult to come by, at least until the last two weeks. In their 26-9 win over the Saints and their 29-3 domination of the Panthers, the Falcons have looked a lot more like the team they used to be. Despite injuries to some of their top players, they look to be getting back on track. No one is making playoff reservations in Atlanta, but this team is finding its footing. If the current run continues, Dan Quinn’s job will be safe and we may very well see an offseason reload and a resurgence in 2020 for the Falcons. For now, they’re 60 minutes away from a third straight win and a climb out of the division’s cellar.
My Pick: Falcons 35, Bucs 27
Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints — 1:00 p.m.
Overview: The top two teams in the division are set to square off for the first time in 2019 this Sunday. With that being said, these two teams aren’t in the same class right now. The Panthers, after starting 0-2, won four straight behind Kyle Allen and Christian McCaffrey, but have since dropped off. They have some work to do to stay in the midst of the NFC playoff picture. At first glance, Carolina doesn’t match up well with New Orleans. Its run defense is suspect, which isn’t ideal when you’re about to see Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. And even though Allen has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise, he doesn’t seem like the type of guy who is ready to go out and beat this Saints defense. Despite all of that, the McCaffrey factor could make a difference.
The Saints are a Super Bowl favorite for a reason. They’re dangerous anywhere, but when they’re at the Superdome, it’s a different level. Drew Brees has taken some criticism for not being the same player he used to be, but he’s still pretty dang good. And with Kamara, Michael Thomas and Jared Cook at his disposal, he doesn’t have to do a ton anyway. Plus, New Orleans’ defense has emerged as a top unit this year. The Panthers might present some challenges early, but sooner or later, the Saints will prove that they’re just the far better team. It might not be as high-scoring as Tampa Bay’s matchup with Atlanta, but it should still be a good, gritty game between to longtime rivals.
Panthers Outlook: This game is pretty much do-or-die for Carolina. At 5-5, the Panthers are already a long way off from threatening the current Wild Card leaders — Seattle (8-2) and Minnesota (8-3). Dropping to 5-6 with a loss here almost ends all hope, especially considering their remaining schedule includes games with Seattle, Indianapolis and another with New Orleans. Plus, another matchup with Atlanta (who just dominated them) looms. Getting to 6-5 at least keeps them alive and in the hunt with Los Angeles (6-4) and Philadelphia (5-5).
Saints Outlook: As good as the Saints have been and as impressive as their 8-2 record is, they would still be the NFC’s No. 3 seed if the season ended today. So, while the NFC South is all but locked up, their sights can shift a little toward the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs. New Orleans can surely work its way to the Super Bowl without home-field, but again, there’s just something different about the Superdome. After the way last season ended, this is a team that wants to make its Super Bowl run in front of its home fans. Another division win on Sunday would help them keep pace with — or surpass — the 9-1 49ers and 8-2 Packers.
My Pick: Saints 24, Panthers 13